Rome creeped up on me.
I didn’t like it at first. The over-crowded, narrow streets and fearsome drivers who seem to be eating, talking on the phone and driving all at the same time is intimidating even though Malaysian drivers are already renowned for our lawlessness. Italians seem to be on the phone all the time. And i say this with legit facts – I clarified with the locals; similar to Germany, they seem to get a lot of talk time on their phones so they prefer to call than to text. Odd, but it is the way of the Romans.
When I arrived in Rome, there was a strike. There were no trains operating, the guides for buses were hopeless, no locals wanted to help me despite my asking and in the end, I had to trudge through the city with my 20kg backpack for 50 minutes before I reach my hostel in Lepanto. The neighbourhood I chose was pretty neat, apparently it is a rich neighbourhood where mostly lawyers reside, and 10 minutes walk from Vatican City.
It is true when they say Italians are passionate as compared to conservative Brits and detached Germans – stereotypes, but they do hold some truth. I took some time getting used to their forwardness. I was at St Peter’s Square when a stranger walked up to me and asked if I was a tourist. Duh, of course I am, do I look local to them? Seriously. People stop me for DIRECTIONS sometimes…I mean, my hair is definitely black and I definitely do have an Asian look, I don’t get why they have the need to stop me and talk in their native language when I clearly don’t understand a word. Maybe they were actually insulting me with a very nicely faked expression, shudders. So anyways, I initially assumed this guy was another tourist so we started chatting and exchanging the basic who, what, when, why questions. It turned out that he was actually a local, without the typical Italian lilt because he travelled extensively (he was an English teacher in Korea for a year! ah, the life) and could easily fake any accent.
We ended up having dinner in, quote him, the best pizza restaurant in town and indeed, that pizza remains the best pizza I had ever tasted. Baked in the traditional ceramic oven, the pizza is oblong instead of the typical circular ones we munch on in Dominos or Pizza Hut. He told me his stories, how he couldn’t take a 9-5 job and ended up travelling for years and recently only got back to Rome. We walked from Lepanto to Trevi Fountain after dinner (oh the looooong walk) and I joined in with the crowd, throwing three coins while making three wishes which I absolutely do not believe in. Rome, essentially, is packed with tourists all the time. It is an excruciating experience but, Rome is Rome after all and at every turn, you are enraptured by things of the past.
We walked past the Spanish steps and I marvelled at how similar some things are across Europe. The night ended with him driving me back to my hostel. His Smart car cracked me up, I kept imagining Malaysia’s version of Kancil on the roman road and giggling, he must have thought I was a little mad but he indulged me by winding down the window and as we drove through the huge park which houses Villa Borghese, for that short moment, I found my light joy. The initial disorderly Rome with workers’ strike died down. This pleasant stranger who showed me another side of Rome, taught me to look beyond the tourists and enjoy the ancient city allowed me to slowly, but surely, enjoy myself in a still crowded and cramped city.